The Iranian Reformists Can Still Do It

The election of a reformist-minded heart surgeon as President of the Islamic Republic might revive the moderates` attempt to re-engage with the West.
Published by
Central Office
on July 10, 2024
on July 10, 2024
Image Source:
Tehran Times
Image Description:
The reformist-minded Masoud Pezeshkian (image) is set to become the next president of Iran.

With 53.6% of the vote, the reformist-minded Masoud Pezeshkian is set to become the next president of Iran. A heart surgeon by profession, Pezeshian managed to grab the support of the reformist camp, including former president Muhammad Khatami, former minister of foreign relations in Hassan Rouhani's administration, Javad Zarif, and political parties that backed Rouhani's candidacy in the past presidential elections. In the second round, the president-elect defeated the candidate from the principialist camp, Saeed Jalili, with 9% of the votes. The presidential elections were in the shadow of a low participation of Iranians at the polls. While the turnout was slightly better than 2021, 49.8% compared with 48.48%, it was still far behind 2017 when 73.33% of Iranians expressed their preferences. There are some serious reasons why another half of the eligible population decided to abstain from voting for the president.

Some Iranians may still feel betrayed and boycotted the elections through non-participation given the low presence of reformist/moderate candidates on the lists. Many reformists have been disqualified by the Guardian Council, an appointed and constitutionally mandated 12-member body that is approving or disqualifying candidates seeking to run in local, parliamentary presidential, or Assembly of Experts elections. Masoud Pezeshkian was the only reformist remaining on the list.

Other Iranians may have lost hope in the power of the vote and the importance of the president and government. As mandated by the national constitution, the President of the Islamic Republic as directly elected by the Iranian population is the head of the government. However, over the couple of decades, the Supreme Leader has acquired tremendous powers through parallel institutions invested with increasing influence over decision-making, as well as his power of veto over members of the government. Thus, for many Iranians, the government remains nothing more than a paper institution meant to implement the directives drawn by the Supreme Leader.

There are Iranians who might have a feeling of rebellion against the records of the former moderate administration during the tenure of Hassan Rouhani. After the signing of the nuclear agreement in 2015 (formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, aka JCPOA) between the Islamic Republic and the P5+1 group (the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council: China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, United States—plus Germany, together with the European Union), followed by the lifting of international sanctions imposed on Iran, the American withdrawal during the Trump administration soon replaced the Iranian hopes with despair in the ability of any Iranian government to contribute to the normalization of relations with the West. This has been amplified by the lack of enthusiasm shown by the current Joe Biden administration in pushing for the revival of the nuclear deal with Iran despite the insistence of many Democrats in Washington for the US president to do so. The potential return of Donald Trump, who pulled the US out of the agreement in 2018, brings even less enthusiasm among Iranians.

Iranians may still feel a sort of disillusionment towards the reformists following almost two decades during Khatami and Rouhani combined without any meaningful change in the trajectory of the state or in the balance of power between the President/government and the Supreme Leader, with the former continuing to lose influence to the detriment of the latter. The signing of the JCPOA was perceived as a historical victory for the Iranian reformists in the attempt to bring Iran closer than ever to political and economic normalization with the US and Europe. The appetite for reform among the population was followed by the 2016 victory in parliamentary elections where the reformist camp managed to secure all 30 seats in Tehran. But the American withdrawal from the agreement and the inability of the EU to withhold it without the support of the White House soon brought resentment in Iran. No matter who is in Washington or Tehran, normalization is a tough nut to crack. In the meantime, the lack of support for the agreement by the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, the interventions of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in the Persian Gulf and the Levant, as well as the Iranian support of the so-called Axis of Resistance against the US, threw a monkey wrench into the operation of all normalization attempt from the Rouhani administration. The moderates could not capitalize on joining the nuclear agreement with the West, an aspect that would have had a domino effect on other attempts to bring Iran, the US and the EU closer together. Worse, the militarist and revolutionary stance of Iran in the region pulled foreign investors out of the country, investment that was willing to occur in the absence of geopolitical uncertainties in the Middle East that pointed towards Iran. Since then, moderates have been losing political influence and with the arrival of Ebrahim Raisi as head of the government in 2021, they were completely removed.

Now, in 2024, few Iranian leaders feel comfortable investing too much political capital in a deal that resigns to political deadlock. Hassan Rouhani pursued a policy that focused on the normalization of relations with the US based on the JCPOA. While it paid off in 2015, soon it dissipated and by 2021, the moderates were almost completely sidelined by principialists in Iranian politics. Now in 2024 with the revival of the reformists under the election of Pezeshkian as president, Tehran might push once more for a JCPOA 2.0. But the president-elect might feel less willing to jump straight towards reclaiming a deal that failed under Rouhani and was marginalized by Raisi. What Pezeshkian might build upon is small steps in consolidating trust between the Islamic Republic and the US. A publicly active effort to assume and exercise the constitutional power of the president as head of the government, together with popular, transparent, meaningful and any last resort attempts to reduce the outside influence and operations of the IRGC in the Middle East could prepare a better ground for a US president (regardless of political affiliation) not only to re-engage with Iran, but to stick to what was agreed, amid increasingly worrying developments in Iran's nuclear program in recent years. The main ingredients for a new JCPOA are full transparency over who holds the constitutional influence over the Iranian policy-making, and unwavering trust in keeping IRGC operations in the Persian Gulf and the Levant outside of a popular mandate.



Reformist lawmaker Masoud Pezeshkian wins Iran’s presidential vote, CNN, Reformist lawmaker Masoud Pezeshkian wins Iran’s presidential vote | CNN.

Elections Could Reshape U.S.-Iran Dynamic, Foreign Policy, Elections Could Reshape U.S.-Iran Dynamic – Foreign Policy.

Can a Reformist President Change Iran?, Foreign Policy,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Short description


© Copyright 2021 |